Foot Cramps

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are foot cramps?

Muscle cramps occur when a muscle or group of muscles suddenly and involuntarily tighten up or contract. This causes discomfort or pain. Foot cramps occur when the muscles in the foot or toes go into spasm. Although foot cramps can happen at any time, they begin most often at night or while resting, as the foot relaxes and the toes point downward.

Foot cramps themselves are not usually a serious medical problem and can happen to anyone at any time. They do not usually require medical treatment. However, someone who experiences frequent foot cramps that do not go away easily or increase in frequency should see a doctor. Although foot cramps are very common, there are some conditions that could increase their frequency.

Most times, foot cramps will go away as quickly as they appeared, usually with muscle stretches.

What other symptoms might occur with foot cramps?

Typically, the only symptom is a cramping, painful feeling in the affected muscle or muscles. But if someone experiences other symptoms associated with the cramps, this could be a sign of a more serious problem. People who experience any of these symptoms along with cramping should see their doctor as soon as possible:

  • Muscle weakness

  • Redness or changes in skin color or texture in the cramping area

  • Severe pain, beyond what cramping usually feels like

  • Swelling in your foot or leg

What causes foot cramps?

The most common foot cramp cause is muscle position. For example, while dancing or doing yoga, the toes may be held in a pointed position. This puts stress on the muscles, which may then go into spasm. The same thing occurs when sleeping. While sleeping, the toes may point downward and the muscle then contracts and causes cramps.

Other causes include:

  • Deficiency of certain minerals, such as potassium or magnesium

  • Dehydration

  • Dialysis

  • Inadequate blood flow to the muscles

  • Overusing the muscle

  • Medication side effects

  • Pregnancy

  • Wearing shoes with improper or insufficient support, such as high heels, flip-flops and sandals

People who suspect their foot cramps are caused by medications should not stop taking the drugs on their own. They should speak to their pharmacist about alternative medications or ways to minimize this side effect.

When should you see a doctor for foot cramps?

For most people, occasional foot cramps are not serious and resolve on their own. However, people who experience any of the following should see with their doctor as soon as possible to rule out any serious medical conditions:

  • Cramping will not go away despite self-care, such as stretching, increasing fluid intake

  • Increase in frequency of cramps

  • Intense or severe pain

  • Leg swelling

  • Length of time of the cramping increases

  • Muscle weakness with the cramping

  • Redness or changes in the skin near the cramping area

How is the cause of foot cramps diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose foot cramps by asking questions about the cramps and possible causes, such as:

  • When do the cramps occur?

  • How often do the cramps occur?

  • What do you do to help them go away?

  • Does anything make them worse or cause them to occur more frequently?

  • Do you take any medications (including over-the-counter drugs or herbal supplements)?

  • How much alcohol do you drink on a regular basis?

  • What kind of exercise do you do?

  • How much fluid do you drink in a typical day?

  • What kind of shoes do you wear?

A physical exam may include testing tendon reflexes.

If the doctor suspects there may be an underlying cause for the cramps, patients may be sent for:

  • Blood tests, to check for mineral levels (like potassium), blood sugar (glucose), and kidney function

  • Electromyography, to check electrical activity in the muscle tissue

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain and spinal cord

  • Pregnancy test

What are the treatments for foot cramps?

Most foot cramps can be treated or managed with self-care once the cramps have begun. Other habits can help prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Home therapies for foot cramps

In addition to over-the-counter pain relievers, home therapies for foot cramps include:

  • Applying heat to the muscle to help relax it, either directly or with a warm bath with Epsom salt.

  • Gently massaging the tight muscle.

  • Stretching. If the cramp is in the middle of the bottom of the foot, stand on the ball of your foot and press down on the big toe.

  • Walking. The walking motion stretches muscles in the foot.

  • While sitting, pull on the toes to stretch the foot upward.

If the cramps don’t improve and your symptoms have a serious effect on quality of life, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant medication.

How to prevent foot cramps

People who are prone to having foot cramps may try to prevent them by:

  • Stretching the foot muscle before participating in an activity that could trigger cramping

  • Pointing and stretching the foot muscles before going to bed

  • Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of fluid throughout the day

  • Consuming foods high in potassium, magnesium and calcium

  • Wearing shoes that offer good support. Avoid high heels and flat shoes, like flip-flops.

  • If medication is a suspected cause, speaking with the doctor about alternative medications

  • If the cramping is caused by a medical condition, following the treatment plan for that condition

What are the potential complications of foot cramps?

There are no complications directly related to foot cramps, other than lack of sleep if they keep you awake. However, there can be complications if the foot cramps are caused by an underlying medical condition, such as kidney disease.

People who experience regular instances of foot cramps should mention this to their doctor so it can be investigated if needed. Treating the underlying condition would reduce the risk of resulting complications, as well as the pain and discomfort from the cramps.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jul 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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